Strength of 'Conviction'
Crusader Betty Anne Waters inspires a film
I was a cub reporter working the night desk in 2001 when a man called and told me, “I’ve got a story for you.’’
He said his name was Barry Scheck, a lawyer for the Innocence Project. The story went like this: Single mother of two works at a bar, but gets her GED, her bachelor’s degree, and then her law degree — all so that she can represent her brother Kenny, who had been convicted of robbing and murdering a woman in Ayer. The sister devotes her life to finding evidence to exonerate her brother. She finds old DNA samples from the crime scene — blood, believed to be the killer’s — in the basement of a courthouse. She fights to have the samples tested. Guess what? Tomorrow, Kenny’s a free man.
“That’s a hell of a story,’’ I agreed.
“Yeah,’’ Scheck said. “She’s going to be the new Erin Brockovich.’’
Then he put Betty Anne Waters on the phone. Betty Anne, who to this day works at an Irish pub in Bristol, R.I., was shy and guarded. She seemed reluctant to portray herself as a high school dropout or a hero. Being a single mom was not a big deal, she said. Neither was dedicating herself to her brother’s case. It’s what you do for family, right? She didn’t seem to be looking for fame. Even so, fame found her. A day after her story ran on the front page of the Globe, my phone started ringing. Agents in Los Angeles wanted to know if I had acquired her life rights. I told them I hadn’t. A few months later, she sold them — to a friend of Barry Scheck’s.
Now, nearly 10 years later, the story is about to play out on the big screen in the new movie “Conviction,’’ opening Friday, with Hilary Swank as Betty Anne, Sam Rockwell as Kenny, and Peter Gallagher as Scheck (yes, the guy from O.J. Simpson’s defense team). It’s a tear-jerker about a woman who devotes her life to freeing her brother.
Usually, when Hollywood anoints your life as movie-worthy, it still embellishes. Your slightly cute boyfriend becomes dashing. Your brief escape from the law becomes a life on the lam. A slap on the face becomes a bullet wound.
But in “Conviction,’’ it’s just the opposite. Dramatic as the movie is, it doesn’t hold a candle to what happened in real life. To keep viewers guessing — and to keep the movie from being a decade long — the craziest twists of this saga never made it to film.
An explanation requires revealing potential spoilers. In the movie, an ex-girlfriend who testified against Kenny at trial sobs a drunken apology to Betty Anne many years after his conviction, right as he is on the verge of getting out of prison. But in reality the sobbed apology happened in 1986, right after the trial, some 15 years before he was released. Betty Anne taped it, hoping it would be the proof she needed to free her brother. But when they put the ex-girlfriend back on the stand during his appeal, she changed her story yet again.
It doesn’t happen that way on screen because director Tony Goldwyn wants to keep the audience wondering whether Kenny, who had a reputation for volatile behavior and who had been sent to reform school for breaking into the victim’s trailer as a child, actually committed the crime. The first draft of the screenplay, he said, left no doubt about Kenny’s innocence or the rightness of Betty Anne’s crusade.
“The trial was portrayed as a travesty,’’ Goldwyn recalled recently. “I said, ‘This isn’t the movie. It doesn’t interest me.’ For two reasons: It is more dramatically interesting if there is tension and doubt, but, more importantly, when people do extraordinary things, when they commit acts of courage, they generally seem insane to everybody else in the world. They are outliers. They are unreasonable people.’’
As they edited the movie, Goldwyn showed the rough cuts to an audience every two weeks. Eventually viewers started to say they weren’t sure if Kenny was innocent or not — exactly what Goldwyn wanted. In the end, the apology of Kenny’s ex-girlfriend, played by Juliette Lewis, turns out to be a key monologue, despite the change in the chronology. The words were taken almost verbatim from the tape that Betty Anne made.
“Conviction’’ writer Pamela Gray “wrote a scene and then threw it out’’ when she heard the real thing, Goldwyn said. “It was fortunate that the truth is better than anything that I could have made up.’’
But perhaps the most significant way that Goldwyn downplayed reality was his portrait of the police investigator who helped put Kenny in prison. In the movie, Nancy Taylor (played by Melissa Leo) is an unsmiling cop who seems convinced of his guilt and is motivated by the desire to solve the brutal murder of an old woman. In real life, Nancy Taylor-Harris was the secretary to the police chief, and she was given a role in investigating crimes despite her lack of training. When I called her at her Pepperell home to ask her what she thought of the movie, she refused to come to the phone.
After winning her brother’s freedom, Betty Anne set out to prove Taylor-Harris’s overzealousness. She found another box of evidence that suggested Taylor-Harris withheld fingerprint analysis that might have ruled out her brother as a suspect from the very beginning.
“I always said, ‘She knows he is innocent,’ ’’ Betty Anne said in a recent interview. “When we found the fingerprints, I said, ‘She is evil.’ ’’ Last year, Betty Anne won a $3.4 million settlement from a lawsuit she filed against the town of Ayer, alleging malicious prosecution. When one of the town’s insurance companies refused to settle, it was forced by a federal judge to pay an additional $10.7 million.
And the story — the real one, that is — doesn’t end there. In 2003, another Ayer man, Dennis Maher, was exonerated by the Innocence Project for a rape he didn’t commit, after an investigation involving Taylor-Harris. Maher also won a multimillion-dollar settlement.
But little of the most damning evidence against Taylor-Harris makes it into the movie, partly because the settlements happened after most of the filming was complete, and partly because the moral certainty that makes great front-page news doesn’t always make for a good movie.
Goldwyn didn’t want to make Taylor-Harris into a monster. “I have no interest in telling a story with easy bad guys,’’ he said. “I’d rather show the darker side of Betty Anne and Kenny.’’
That instinct led to a particularly gripping scene in the movie, when Betty Anne finally locates the DNA sample of the killer’s blood but Kenny refuses to be tested. It’s a moment that catches a viewer in the gut, offering the possibility that everything may not be what it seems. Ironically, had he turned out to be guilty the movie would have become a far more gripping psychological profile. But it probably never would have been made.
“Conviction’’ has a Hollywood ending that leaves the story with a happy image: brother and sister seated at a picnic table, talking about the dreams they had when they were kids.
Real life threw this family a bigger curveball. Kenny died in a freak accident just six months after his release. He climbed a fence, broke it, and hit his head on the ground. The movie never tells you that, even in its epilogue notations.
Still, Goldwyn said his film hews closely enough to the truth that it would stand up in court if any of the movie’s real-life counterparts tried to sue for defamation. Nasty lawsuits by angry or jealous people who become unwitting characters in a movie are not uncommon. Brockovich, whose name became the title of a movie starring Julia Roberts after she helped a town win a settlement for deadly pollution, settled a libel lawsuit by her ex-husband out of court. And Betty Anne, who no longer practices law, acknowledged that not everyone in her life has been thrilled about the movie.
“I’m not going to say everything is rosy,’’ she said. “The only thing I feel a little bad about is my mom. She was portrayed rather harshly . . . But I told my mother before she passed away; she was OK with it.’’ Betty Anne said her mother supported the movie as a way to help the innocent in prison, even if it painted her in an excessively negative light.
Despite the difficulty of translating life to film, Betty Anne has come as close to a Hollywood ending as one gets. These days she hangs out with Rockwell and Swank, promoting a film that portrays her as a hero. And she has acquired a new family of sorts: the bizarre fraternity of 259 convicts exonerated by the Innocence Project, many of whom she has gotten to know well.
Though the cinematic story is done, there is one more chapter that Betty Anne wants to finish: solving the murder her brother was convicted of. So far, the killer’s DNA has not turned up a match in any database, but Betty Anne has a hunch. The man she thinks committed the murder is dead, but she still holds out hope that DNA from a surviving relative could solve the mystery once and for all.
Farah Stockman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.